Not a Russian in sight: Turkish tourism slumps amid ongoing political clash
KUNDU, Turkey - Swimming through Red Square, the patter of holiday chat in a dozen languages filters through the pop hits blasting from the pool bar. Under the twirling domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, groups of Germans, Brits, Romanians and Iranians ask each other to pass the tanning oil. There are some Saudis and a team of amateur footballers from Kyrgyzstan. But there is not a Russian in sight.
The Kremlin Palace Hotel was built in 2003 at a time of rapidly growing visitor numbers from Russia. Set in Kundu, a sandy Mediterranean resort near the Turkish city of Antalya, modelled on Moscow’s famous old citadel, it is one of a chain of vast complexes built along the waterfront.
In 2014, 4.5 million Russian tourists holidayed in Turkey, making them the top visitors after Germans. Antalya was a favourite destination. But when Turkey shot down a Russian jet last November, the tourism industry also took a nosedive. Furious at Ankara’s actions, Russian President Vladimir Putin barred tour companies from selling chartered packages to Turkey.
Official figures for March showed a 59 percent drop in Russian tourists. Local businessmen say that April, when the season usually gets underway, was even worse. As a series of Russian holidays begin with Russian Orthodox Easter on 1 May, everyone is waiting anxiously to see if a terrible start to the year will show any sign of picking up.
A home from home
Why Russians would want to fly 2,000 miles to spend their holidays in a Kremlin replica is not entirely clear. Staff insist that - in the past at least - the Russian visitors liked it. “It makes them feel at home,” one said.
The main building is housed in a replica of the State History Museum, a giant gingerbread house whose red brickwork clashes with the cloudless blue sky. The hotel guide is full of non-sequiturs: “El Sombrero restaurant - at your service with Mexican specialities in St Basil Cathedral between 19:00 - 20:00.”
The company that owns the Kremlin Palace is cagey and refuses to grant interviews to media. But staff at the hotel privately admit that only a quarter of its 830 rooms were occupied last week.
In the Elegiya cocktail bar, the pianist - a Salman Rushdie lookalike who trained at the Istanbul Conservatoire - performs crowd-pleasing ballads in an impressive array of languages. “I still play Moscow Nights,” he laments. “But now there are no Russians.”
Later on in the nightclub, housed in the neoclassical Kremlin Senate, the DJ has a special folder marked “Russian, spring 2015”. But in a bizarre behavioural experiment conducted on drunk tourists, he shows how three dozen people leap to their feet when he spins an Iranian pop hit.
When he plays a big tune from Russian hip-hop giant Timati, just one woman takes to the circular dance floor. Was this a rare sighting of a Russian? No, just an open-minded Israeli.
If the problems lay solely with Russia, perhaps Turkey’s tourism sector could make up the shortfall, but the country is being increasingly destabilised by the war in neighbouring Syria.
The Islamic State (IS) group has launched a series of deadly suicide bombings, including two in Istanbul, the cultural and historical capital. The victims included groups of Israeli and German tourists.
Amid a violent resurgence in the long-running conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state, a PKK splinter group claimed responsibility for a pair of attacks on Ankara and has threatened attacks on tourist areas.
For those who still want to visit Turkey, there are great deals to be had, with hotels slashing their prices by as much as 50 percent. From his sun lounger on the Kremlin Palace’s private beach, Ben Sprigs, 26, from the English seaside town of Blackpool, says that is he pleased that he and his wife overcame their doubts and went ahead with their holiday.
He admits, however, to being jumpy. A loud, unexpected fireworks display launched by a nearby hotel triggered a wave of panic. “It sounded like explosions,” he said. “People were screaming. One English couple locked themselves in their room.”
Many in the tourism sector are angry at the foreign embassies and news outlets that issue and report on terror warnings. They accuse them of whipping up fear about the country even though there has also been bloodshed in European capitals.
But the frequency of attacks in Turkey is higher. On Wednesday, a blast in the city of Bursa that injured 13 people brought the tally to five suicide bombings in 2016 alone. Turks themselves are frightened, sharing rumours about possible targets and avoiding shopping malls and public squares.
The decline in numbers is not hitting just the hotels. Antonio Ilhanlı, a shopkeeper and father of two, had thought that the last few years were bad after Western sanctions designed to punish Russia’s actions in Ukraine hit the Russian rouble. Now he looks back fondly on those times.
Some European and Arab tourists still come to his emporium stocked with piles of colourful T-shirts, but Russians were always the big spenders, with many families splurging as much as $2,000 in one go. He needs sales of $1,000 per day to cover his costs. At the moment, he's making an average of $200.
Nor is it only the beach resorts that are suffering. Bookings are also down in the pretty old city district of Antalya. Hotels popular with American and European tourists are more than half-empty. Outside boutiques selling carpets and ceramics, bored shopkeepers play on their phones or sip tea in the afternoon sun.
In February, the government announced a package of subsidies to support the tourism sector and Turkish citizens have heeded a plea to holiday at home this year. Aysun Tuna, 42, a banker from Istanbul, chose Kundu over her normal preference for overseas trips. "This is a difficult time for Turkey," she says. "We decided to stay in Turkey this year to support it.”
But if the EU makes good on its promise to grant visa-free travel to the Schengen Zone from June, then it will be even easier for Turks to go abroad.
There is some hope in new markets. Pausing for a break from taking selfies in the sea, Han Xue Jun, 45, from Beijing, said that she loves Turkey. “Turkish people are so nice to Chinese people,” she said. Tour companies are also targeting Iran, where US sanctions were lifted last year, and the Gulf. In March, Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways announced it would increase its flights to Istanbul to meet growing demand.
Difficult summer ahead
Some in Kundu argue that it is too early to tell whether this year will be a disaster. The evidence, however, points to a rocky period. Thomas Cook Airlines has cut roughly a third of its planned flights to Turkey. TUI Group, which owns Thomson and First Choice, reported a 40 percent slump in bookings for this summer. Spanish and American airlines have cut back on flights.
In 2014, a total of 37 million visitors were worth $34.3bn to the Turkish economy - 4.3 percent of GDP. March saw an eighth consecutive decline in visitor numbers. Some are now warning of a slump that may last several years.
While halting the bombings may be a tall order, in Antalya they say that a rapprochement with Russia would at least mitigate some of the European losses.
One of the draws for visitors to the Kremlin Palace is that they can also explore the vast grounds of the neighbouring Topkapı Palace, a replica of the residence of Ottoman sultans for hundreds of years.
The brochure promises that it is “just a couple of steps” between these great symbols of Turkish and Russian power. The hoteliers and shopkeepers of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast are desperately hoping that their leaders will take that message to heart.